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A Week In The Life of an MFA Student

This month, I thought I’d share a glimpse at what a typical week looks like for me as a full-time MFA student. This does not take into account the other regular tasks that we all have – paying bills, eating, being with our friends and loved ones, etc. Nor does it account for working because the freelancing I was doing up until the 3rd week of October was supposed to have finished in early September, so it wasn’t supposed to be there anyway. English Comp

Rather, I have focused really just on the schoolwork and my own writing, since that is directly related. Also, you should know that Stony Brook University, where I am a student, has three campuses – Manhattan, (where I will follow most of my classes over the two+ year program) Stony Brook (the main campus) and Southampton (where the MFA program is housed and I will have classes periodically).

I’m going to start with Tuesday because that is the beginning of my class week and, after all, I’m a creative writing student so you wouldn’t expect me to start on Sunday or Monday, would you?!

Tuesday:

8:30 am: leave the house for my commute to Southampton. I do a lot of reading during my commute.

1:30 pm: arrive at Southampton for my 2:20pm class titled “What We Write About When We Write About Love” with Roger Rosenblatt.

In this class we mostly discuss one another’s pieces – almost always 250 words about love, or on occasion a sonnet or lyrics to a love song or some other specific form – and our professor gives us feedback on our work. The beauty of being limited to 250 words is that it forces us to focus on what really matters and cut all of the extra words. This has been extremely helpful for me in becoming a sharper writer.

He also had us read the Joyce essay, The Dead, from Dubliners, as well as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsbyboth of which we then discussed in class.

5:00 pm: commute back to Brooklyn

10:00 pm: I am back at home.

Wednesday:

Re-read the other student’s pieces for my fiction class. Two students submit each week for workshop and each submission is generally between 20-40 pages, sometimes less if they’ve submitted a short story.

3:30 pm (ish) leave Brooklyn for Manhattan – I often continue reading my assigned book during this commute.

4:30 pm (ish) arrive at Manhattan campus with time to relax and prepare my mind for class and, if necessary, finish any notes on my colleague’s pieces.

5:20 – 8:10 – Fiction with Susan Minot

In this class we have spent about 75% of our time on our workshop submissions and our teacher gives in-depth line-by-line feedback so that we really understand what works and what can be improved. At the beginning of each class, she often gives us a short reading and leads us in a discussion about the craft of writing. We have had two other assignments on character development, which we’ve also gone over, a few here, a few there, over the semester. And, finally, we’ve had four books to read for class.

She has had us read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Stoner by John Williams, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. She’d originally assigned Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick and then switched it to House of Mirth but I’d already finished most of it so I’ve counted it, as well. And, for what it is worth, I highly recommend both Dept. of Speculation and Stoner. I loved both and, particularly Stoner because I don’t know that I would have known to read it had it not been assigned – amazing book!

8:30 (ish) back on the subway and usually home by 9 or 9:30pm.

Thursday:

Re-read my memoir cohort’s pieces and make comments. Two students submit each week and they are often between 10-20 pages each and are always pieces of memoir although some are one-off pieces while others are sections towards book length manuscripts.

3:30 pm (ish) leave Brooklyn for Manhattan – I often continue reading my assigned book during this commute, although by Thursdays I sometimes just “people watch” because my brain is getting tired.

4:30 pm (ish) arrive at Manhattan campus with time to relax and prepare my mind for class and, if necessary, finish any notes on my colleague’s pieces.

5:20-8:10 – Memoir with Melissa Bank

This class always starts with an in-class writing prompt and we generally write for about 25-30 minutes and then read our pieces aloud and no comments are really made, we just listen to one another. The result of this is that each student now has about a dozen pieces that they can further develop into longer essays or works of memoir.

After that, we review the submitted pieces for the week and give our feedback on what worked and what didn’t. The teacher also gives her thoughts so that we can all learn how to improve our writing based on each other’s samples.

Lastly, our teacher invites us to close our eyes and she goes through and reads her favorite lines from our previous week’s in-class writing assignments which we have typed up and sent her by email for feedback. She then returns those to us and we are finished for the evening.

8:30 (ish) back on the subway and usually home by 9 or 9:30pm.

As soon as I get home on Thursdays, I type up my in-class assignment and email it to the instructor, mostly so I don’t forget. She (and Susan Minot, as well) has expressed that she feels strongly that the process of writing is as important as the writing itself. Both have encouraged us to do first drafts by hand and then transcribe those word for word. Editing would only then begin once those two versions are complete. Personally, I am much faster as a typist than by hand, so I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I can see the merit of connecting pen to page, particularly for early drafts. I’ll think on this as the rest of my program rolls out.

Once I’ve emailed Melissa Bank my in-class assignment, my classes are done for the week.

And then the real writing begins…

Depending on other engagements, I often take Friday off because after the three back-to-back classes and required commuting, I’m usually pretty tired. But sometimes I work (that means write) on Fridays and take Saturday or Sunday off, or even Monday. It varies, but for the sake of this post, let’s say I take Friday off. So…

Friday: rest and recuperation.

Saturday:

I first work on my blog post for the week. I have a personal blog which doesn’t have anything to do with my MFA, but I started it last spring to force myself to produce something on a regular basis. If you’re curious, you can peek at it here: http://martina-clark.com/

Producing each post often takes me several hours. I start with the first draft and rework it once or twice in Word and then I copy it into WordPress and format it. I then look for a photo to insert – always nicer with visuals – and generally do more edits until I’m happy with how it will look (this post, for example, has gone through 22 revisions) and then I schedule it to go live on Sunday morning and send it out into the universe.

I then turn to my “Love” class assignments of 250 words about love. Often these are ideas I’ve been thinking about for a while and some I’ve even started to draft. I will work on those for another several hours until my eyes get tired or my brain has had enough. To summarize, about half my time on Saturday is spent on my blog and half on my homework.

Sunday:

I generally come back to my “Love” assignments and also work on any other assignments for my other classes. For both my fiction and memoir classes, I submitted pieces that I’d drafted prior to the semester as I already have a large body of work to draw from. But I still always had to select, review and edit those pieces for submission. Over the course of the semester, I submitted about 40 pages of memoir (20 x 2) and another 50 of fiction (30 and 20) for the weeks when my pieces were up for discussion. So, in short, Sunday is generally spent entirely on homework.

Monday:

By Monday, I will have received all of the assigned reading for my classes that week – some are handed out in class, some are sent by email which I print at home – so I read through those and make initial comments.

The idea of the workshop is that we read each piece twice, the first time commenting mostly just with copy editing notes – typos, grammar, etc. We then re-read the piece for deeper comments on content; how does the piece hold together structurally, is the arc clear, do we get to know the characters well enough, and so on. All of this is in preparation for the in-depth discussions that happen in class as each piece comes up in the workshop.

I am not a fast reader so I always give myself an hour for each piece so that I can think about it with the same care and consideration that I hope I’ll get from my cohort on my on writing. I very much enjoy this part of the coursework because it is interesting to see writing in various stages of editing and completeness and I find that I learn more, often, from the other students’ writing than from the books we read, although I enjoy those as well.

I often also spend a good chunk of Monday reading whatever book I have assigned at the time and finishing up any last-minute touches on my own submissions for the week.

And that is pretty much it – a ton of reading and a lot of writing. And it is fantastic. I find that I am surrounded by great minds and it thrills me to be a part of this program. When people have suggested that I don’t need an MFA to be a writer, I agree, because I don’t.

But I am still 100% convinced that this is the right choice because it gives me the luxury of two years in the company of other writers; both published authors and students who are learning along with me. And, in all honesty, the writing of my cohort continues to surprise, delight and inspire me.

I think that at Stony Brook I’ve found the gem of MFA programs in the quarry that is literary New York.

How lucky I am!

 

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2 Comments

    • Martina Clark says

      Yep – every slight change in WordPress counts as a new version! They’re usually tiny edits but they add up quickly!

      Like

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